COUDERSPORT – Whoever says Johnsonburg's varsity football program is dead may be very wrong indeed.
The Rams (1-2) used a series of defensive stops in the fourth quarter Friday night to knock off Coudersport (1-2) in a 22-14 upset in a steady rainfall, the program's first victory since a 41-0 win at home on Oct. 8, 2010 against Ridgway, the last win of former head coach Tom Launer before his untimely death six months later.
With a one-point lead starting the fourth quarter, senior quarterback Frank Kocjancic hit senior wide receiver Mitchell Holmberg for a 44-yard catch-and-run pass down the left sideline. The senior standout, who finished the game with 10 receptions for 165 yards, one touchdown, and two key interceptions, avoided several defenders before being taken down at the 11-yard line. Kocjancic wasted no time as he found senior wide receiver Kyle Sheldon on a slant pattern across the right side of the field for an 11-yard scoring toss with 11:23 to play in the game. A Sheldon extra point gave Johnsonburg a 22-14 lead.
Coudersport would start on their own 39-yard line but a fumble on a third down play was scooped up by senior defensive lineman Mitchell Schloder, giving the Rams possession on the Falcon 45-yard line.
Seeking to gain a two-possession advantage, Kocjancic was roughed up on a 10-yard sack and had to leave the game for one play. Facing 3rd-and-20, Kocjancic hit senior wide receiver Caleb Garvey for a 16-yard pass play but he fumbled the ball as he fell toward the turf.
Sophomore defensive back Scott Furman scooped up the ball for the Falcons, giving the home team first down on their own 39-yard line.
Senior running back Mitch Freeman, who paced all rushers with 129 yards and two touchdowns, immediately moved the chains with a 10-yard run. Later facing 4th-and-5 after a quarterback rush, Coudersport junior quarterback Ethan Hite dumped off a pass on a screen play to senior running back Caden Whitman. The Rams' defensive unit read the play and forced a five-yard loss, turning the ball over on downs.
The celebration was short-lived, however, as a poor pitch in the backfield from Kocjancic to senior running back Shane Bickford fell to the slippery grass and was recovered for the Falcons by senior defensive lineman Alex Fletcher.
Seeking another chance near midfield, the Falcons faced another third down play but Holmberg, who picked off two passes last week against Smethport, came up big as he intercepted a Hite offering on the Johnsonburg 32-yard line with 6:32 to play in the game.
The Falcon defense, however, would force three consecutive plays for negative yardage, including back-to-back sacks as Kocjancic went down. After a three-and-out, a Sheldon punt gave the Falcons possession again, this time on their own 43-yard line.
Facing 2nd-and-4, Freeman broke free for a 29-yard run to set up shop at the Rams' 23-yard line. A pass play on second down fell incomplete with tight coverage by a versatile Holmberg in the end zone. On 3rd-and-9 with 2:13 to play, Hite broke free for a 10-yard rushing play down the right sideline but went airborne on the play. As Hite came down, the ball came loose and the Rams fell on it to regain possession and again frustrate the Falcon offensive unit.
The Rams were back deep on their own 14-yard line and after a run for negative yardage, Kocjancic's 2nd-and-13 pass fell incomplete, bringing up a third down play with 1:50 on the clock. The Johnsonburg coaching staff elected to keep the ball on the ground and went with a safe rushing play that yielded only one yard.
This time around, Sheldon got off a big momentum-booster, booting the punt 44 yards to give the Falcons a first down on their own 43-yard line with 96 seconds left in regulation.
Needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game, Hite found junior running back Alex Hershey for an 8-yard pass to the Johnsonburg 49-yard line but two incomplete passes forced fourth down. Hite appeared to have connected on a pass on third down to freshman wide receiver Nevada Waterman on the right sideline but the player's left foot appeared to be out of bounds.
On fourth down, Hite regrouped to find Furman on the left side for a 31-yard catch-and-run play to keep the drive alive, bringing up 1st-and-10 on the Johnsonburg 18-yard line.
After an incomplete pass, Hite hit senior running back Clayton Wilson for a three-yard gain. Facing 3rd-and-7, Hite's pass fell incomplete, again forcing the Falcons into a fourth down play with 18.3 seconds left on the clock.
Coudersport would again find a way to move the chains in the do-or-die situation, this time as Hite scrambled 10 yards on a broken play after failing to find the open man. A Coudy timeout set up 1st-and-goal on the five-yard line but a negative rushing play for Freeman, his only blemish of the night, forced Falcon head coach Chris Fink to burn his final timeout with 6.1 seconds remaining.
Lining up at the seven-yard line, Hite backed up to pass and surveyed the end zone for an open man. The quarterback's lob to the end zone was well-defended by Holmberg, who stepped in front for the pick, his second interception of the game, to finish off the Falcons and give the Rams their first victory in nearly two years.
"For two years, they've given us their hearts every Friday night and I'm just happy to see that they've come out victorious this time. Our players deserve this," said Johnsonburg head varsity football coach Jesse Schreiber. "It's not about me and it never was. It's about the kids and I'm happy they got the win, especially for the kids who were out last year as well and worked hard. It's not about me or the coaches, it's about our players."
The two teams kept the ball on the ground for much of the first half as a steady downpour started to fall in the second quarter.
After Kocjancic hit Holmberg for a first down early in the first quarter, the Rams elected to try a fake punt on a fourth down play but Holmberg's run went for only a yard as the visitors turned the ball over on downs.
Coudersport's rushing attack went to work on their first offensive series, starting with six straight rushing plays before Hite hit Furman for a 20-yard reception to set up shop on the Johnsonburg 16-yard line.
Freeman ran the ball three straight times to advance to the five-yard line before the visiting defense tightened up. Furman ran the ball for a yard on 2nd-and-goal from the five-yard line and followed that play with a rush for no gain, setting up 4th-and-goal from the four-yard line.
The Coudy coaching staff set up a pass play for Hite but the junior quarterback's pass fell incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
Pinned deep, the Rams went three-and-out and punted the ball away to end the first quarter, giving the Falcons possession and a short field on the Johnsonburg 39-yard line. The home team again could do nothing with the football, losing three yards on a 4th-and-1 play to again turn the ball over on downs.
"I don't know how we stopped [Coudersport's] running attack," Schreiber said. "We had to be quick, we hit the gaps, and we went to a new defense [Friday], a 3-5, and they hit the gaps and played their responsibilities. We've preached it since the beginning, playing your responsibilities and your gaps, and you have to play downhill, and they did it."
Struggling with their running game early, the Rams went to the air as Kocjancic hit Garvey with a 32-yard pass to move the chains. The Falcons came up with a big play on the next snap as Kocjancic had trouble with a high snap, resulting in a 13-yard loss.
The senior quarterback would hook up with Holmberg for a 10-yard pass play before the Rams punted on 4th-and-12.
Needing 60 yards for a score, Hite would complete a 30-yard pass to Hershey and Freeman found some room on a 17-yard run to put Coudy in business in Johnsonburg territory. An incomplete pass on a rollout play brought up 4th-and-2 at the 18-yard line but the Falcons had little trouble converting as Hite found Hershey again, this time for a 17-yard pass as he was hit out of bounds just before the goal line.
Freeman would stroll in from a yard out for a 6-0 lead but the Falcons' two-point conversion try failed.
"We had a lot of mental mistakes in the first half and we fought back," Schreiber said. "I told the players who made those mistakes that they have to make up for it, and they did. They did what they had to do, they came back and fought, and I'm so proud of them.
"To come up here to Coudersport against a big physical football team, this is a great win. We lost one of our guys to injury, I don't know how long that's going to be, but we overcame that as well. We kept on fighting and they played their hearts out."
The Rams would quickly respond, however, with a seven-play scoring drive to take the lead.
The drive started off on the wrong foot as Kocjancic lost seven yards on a sack but quickly righted the ship with a 16-yard completion to Holmberg on 3rd-and-16 to move the chains. After a 12-yard completion to Holmberg, a 29-yard touchdown pass to Sheldon was nullified by a holding call.
Kocjancic quickly shrugged off the inconvenience and found Holmberg from 35 yards out for a score with 1:36 remaining in the second quarter. A two-point conversion pass to Sheldon gave Johnsonburg an 8-6 halftime advantage.
With steady rain falling for much of the third quarter, the Falcons managed one first down on the first series of the second half before facing 4th-and-9 near midfield. Coudy lined up in punt formation with Hite in the backfield but the fake punt was botched and the quarterback was only able to get off a seven-yard kick.
The Rams had a first down on their own 48-yard line but went three-and-out, forcing another Sheldon punt.
Six plays later, Coudy was forced to punt the ball away but sophomore defensive lineman Ricky Shipe blocked the kick to give the Rams possession on the Coudy 38-yard line. Kocjancic wasted no time, hitting Holmberg on a 17-yard pass play and then finding Garvey camping out on the goal line from 21 yards out with 4:43 to play in the third quarter. A Sheldon extra point gave the Rams a 15-6 lead.
The Falcons would respond on the next drive, marching 70 yards in eight plays, including a 48-yard pass down the center of the field to a wide open Waterman. Freeman again rumbled in from one yard out and then converted the two-point conversion run to cut the lead to 15-14 as time winded down in the third quarter, setting up the back-and-forth fourth quarter theatrics.
"Mitchell Holmberg had a great game but to get the pressure off him, I was glad to see we got the football to our other playmakers as well," Schreiber said. "We had a couple big catches and that's what we have to do, hit other guys with the ball so it will free up [Holmberg] even more. We'll take advantage of what a defense will give us and it's fun to have some athletes out there who can do that.
"We're going to keep our players grounded and level them out a little bit on Monday. It was a good Coudersport football team and we're going to see a great football team this coming Friday with Curwensville. It'll be Homecoming and we just have to go back to work on Monday. It's one game, now we're moving on to the next game. It's a credit to our assistant coaches as well, they do a great job every week and I'm really proud of all of us."